My Uncle James lived in such a way most of us can’t comprehend. The same goes for three of his brothers. Those uncles of mine – all on my mother’s side – were born with various levels of intellectual disabilities. James and my Uncle Steve – who died in 1996 from melanoma – have lived out their time on earth and entered Heaven.
James’ first steps into eternity took place around lunchtime on Saturday, Sept. 1. His funeral happened a few days later. As is common in small towns, cars pulled over to the side of the road as the funeral procession made its way to the cemetary at Union United Methodist Church. In fact, in my hometown of Centre, Ala., a lot of cars don’t pull over; they stop right in the middle of the road to prevent Yankees vacationing at Weiss Lake and people with no sense of decorum from embarassing themselves by continuing to drive on by.
For those who didn’t know them, it could be a challenge to understand my uncles. When James got excited he’d get louder and his voice a little deeper, more gravely. But over time you’d get accustomed to the cadence of his voice. Soon, it could seem as clear as anyone else’s. You’d get there. But like I said, it took time.
“We always called them ‘the boys,'” my mom tells me. That remained even when they were grown. My earliest memory of my uncles would be of visits to my Maw Maw and Paw Paw’s house when they still lived there. They were prone to walk down the road a few miles listening to the radio perched on their shoulder. Hours would pass, but they’d always show back up.
Once, my mom told me, the boys ended up at a store a little further off than normal. For some reason some local teens decided it would be funny to slap them around. It was bad enough that my uncles went to the hospital to get checked out. Doris Barkley is a sweet, godly woman, but when she told me that story her mouth drew tight in anger. Her eyes burned at the cruelty of it.
I wonder myself how someone could do such a thing. Why does an able-bodied young man decide to hurt someone when he could be a friend? Is it because my uncles looked different? Talked different? Is that it, if you can’t understand someone – or even more choose to not understand them – it’s easier to see them as something less than a person?
For most of their lives, James and his brothers lived in group homes for adults in different parts of north Alabama. My mom and her siblings visited often. During holidays James, Steve, Gerald, and Ricky would stay at different relatives’ homes.
My mom’s family – the Vaughns – are loud people. I mean that in a good way. The welcome you loud, laugh with you loud, make you feel at home … loud. Steve, Ricky, and James were also loud (Gerald not so much). I always wondered if they reflected the rest of the family or it was the other way around. Either way, they fit in when we were all together.
But like I said, my uncles didn’t live with their siblings all the time. The level of care at homes for adults like James vary, but my observation was the one where he and two other residents lived in Albertville, AL was a good one.
I spent some time talking to Robin, the supervisor, about how over time residents like James become family to them, too. He was devoted to the Alabama Crimson Tide and fishing. I knew that, as well his ability to love everyone and make friends easily. One thing I didn’t know about was the girlfriend he had in another home. Yes, he’d visit often. I also didn’t know the home where he lived took the residents to the little Baptist church down the road each week.
After losing his sight five years ago, James had been sick for awhile with leukemia. On the first Saturday this month, we got a morning call that his health was turning bad fast. I sped 60 miles west to my hometown. Soon after that my mom, brother, and I were driving up and across Sand Mountain to Albertville. We got there 15 minutes after James died.
We made our way into his room. James laid under a fuzzy Crimson Tide blanket with a Bama cap hanging from the bedpost. A Southern Gospel group sang “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” from the radio on his chest of drawers. My Uncle Reuben would tell me later that “I’ll Fly Away” was playing the moment James died.
We stood. We cried. He wasn’t sick anymore, we reminded each other. He wasn’t tired and complaining about not being able to get a breath. Right then, as we stood in that little bedroom, James was walking with Jesus. He was talking with his Lord.
For the first time in five years he could see. For the first time ever his mind was clear. His speech was strong. For the first time, his understanding exceeded all of ours.